Something that really surprised, and impressed, me when I first visited Sweden two years ago was the apparent lack of smokers. Initially I put this down to the smoking ban in all public places: I was living in Vietnam at the time and I was fairly used to sitting in a hazy cloud of second-hand smoke whether in a bar, a restaurant, or a cinema and so not having to peer through a yellow mist everywhere I went was somewhat of a novelty. But then I noticed that I didn’t really see hoardes of workers standing outside the office door smoking their breaks away, trendy young couples stubbing out cigarette ends whilst enjoying an outdoors lunch or school kids smoking a crafty fag at the bus-stop. Of course I saw people smoking but not in the numbers that you would see on the streets of the UK. As Swedes have a reputation overseas for being health conscious, I thought that maybe this extended to smoking too and didn’t think much more about it.
A few days later Nicklas and I went to a barbecue at the house of some of his friends. We sat outside on a lovely Swedish summer evening chatting away and sharing a bottle of wine. Then I saw our host, let’s call him Sven, take out a round tin from his pocket, and remove a small white sachet and place it surreptitiously under his lower lip. Nobody said anything. I was intrigued. What could it be? Having never seen anything like it before I mentally ran through the options. We were in the middle of eating so it seemed unlikely to be a mint or chewing gum. It didn’t look like medication. I couldn’t think about anything else. Except for drugs. I don’t know much about drugs but I do know that you smoke weed, snort cocaine, inject heroine, and that Ecstasy comes in small round tablets not square white pouches so I eliminated those options. This drug was much more subtle, nobody else seemed to have noticed. Or maybe they had and they just turned a blind eye. I looked at Nicklas and tried to subconsciously ask my question – what had ‘Sven’ taken? He didn’t understand and carried on eating his hotdog oblivious to the racing questions in my mind.
Then it struck me! LSD! That’s what you put in your mouth, although I thought it was meant to go on the tongue but maybe it works just as well under the lower lip? Satisfied that I now had the answer, and feeling a little apprehensive about the friends that Nicklas was hanging out with (although they really didn’t look the acid type, but who knows?!), I watched ‘Sven’ with interest to see when the effects would begin to show. Twenty minutes later and there was still no sign of dilated pupils, nervous twitches or any form of a high. In fact ‘Sven’ seemed comfortable and chilled out. The rest of the evening passed with no further developments and so I remained curious.
On the way home I grilled Nicklas about the strange substance and after all of my wild fantasies I was actually rather disappointed to discover the mundane truth that it was not some kind of acid drug but Snus: moist powder tobacco contained in a pouch that looks rather like a teabag. Once the pouch is placed between the upper lip and gum it begins to release nicotine comparable to that of a cigarette, therefore a smoker is able to get the same satisfaction as from nicotine but without the anti-social effects of smoke and without having to leave a nice warm bar in the middle of winter. Another advantage is that snus delivers lower concentrations of the more toxic chemicals contained in cigarettes, making respiratory afflictions and links to lung cancer less common. In fact ‘as of 2000, Sweden has a lower standardised rate of male lung cancer incidence than any comparable developed nation in the world.’ Sounds like a perfect comprise for those who just can’t seem to kick the habit, right?
Despite the clear advantages of snus over cigarettes, particularly in regard to the issue of passive smoking, Snus is still considered dangerous. Firstly there are concerns about an increase in oral cancer and damage to the gums as the chemicals in snus begin to erode the skin in the mouth (in the same way that snorting cocaine eventually damages the septum). Others are concerned that the discrete nature of snus and the slightly lower price than an average box of cigarettes could lead to teenagers picking up the habit more easily than they might smoking, or that snus users, initially enticed by the minimised health risks, will eventually develop into smokers – snus being the ‘gateway’ for the habit. These, alongside a World Health Organisation (WHO) study in 1985 led to an EU ban on the sale of Snus in 1992, with only Norway and Sweden remaining exempt from this ban. In fact, Sweden insisted on an exemption from this ban before joining the EU in 1995. Many groups campaign that this ban should be lifted as many of the health risks of using snus have never been confirmed.
Undeniably, Snus is a far less anti-social habit than smoking. Others are not subjected to breathing in filthy smoke; smelling the unpleasant aroma of stale smoke that lingers on the breath, hair and clothes of a smoker; or having to stand outside shivering on icy evenings whilst your companions feed their nasty habit (can you tell that I am not a smoker?!!). It is also kind of fun to spot those using snus based on the way they clench their top lip as they talk – it looks pretty funny – so as not to drop the snus mid-sentence.
And if you want even more fun, find a bunch of Swedes far away from home and tell them that there’s cheap snus available down the road to see how fast they run. Just make sure that you are nowhere in sight when they return